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The Year of Head Empty

If 2020 was a time of restless paranoia, 2021 was the braindead sequel

We’ve declared each successive year the “worst ever” for at least half a decade now. Whatever the issues or trends used to justify these claims, I think we’re flattening time — purposefully erasing distinctions between one phase of misery and the next. It’s a historical problem. How would you contrast, for example, 2018 and 2019? To most adults, they’re already the same. 

This blur has also plagued our understanding of 2020 versus 2021. Maybe you remember, despite warnings to the contrary, some day in mid-2020 when it felt like the COVID-19 pandemic would be vanquished before Earth had circled the sun again. Vaccines were around the corner, Trump was on his way out… why not indulge in a fit of optimism? Many of us told ourselves we had to skip holiday traditions this once, in order to (ideally) bring them back come 2021. But any expectation of a return to normalcy was annihilated shortly into the new year, on January 6th, when Trump supporters attacked the U.S. Capitol to try to overturn the election he’d lost.

Something about this woman’s daffy expression — along with the credible accusation that “she don’t even know where the hell she at” — has stuck with me ever since. And even though it later turned out the picture had been taken on a different day in Topeka, Kansas, I believe the tweet prophesied a detachment we would all come to experience, the vacancy of an idea deferred. In meme language, it’s “no thoughts, head empty,” a cognitive state that mimics bliss through the ignorance of a catastrophic reality. In 2021, you only achieved balance by going totally blank.

The trauma of 2020 was without authentic relief in the grinding months that followed. The Democrats swept into power and got to work accomplishing nothing. The super-slutty hot vax summer we all looked forward to became a season that saw us down bad despite a medical miracle. Big events were still postponed or canceled, while others went on and led to more COVID-19 cases. The frustration with unvaccinated people reached a boiling temperature. As we confronted the Delta variant — and were then introduced Omicron — some of the early 2020 panic reemerged. Today it seems we’re back at square one. Like the past year didn’t happen.

And that slippage raises an important question: If the future never arrives, what are we thinking in the meantime? Did we ever have anything in our heads? Or, like that woman at the Capitol riot, did we not have the slightest awareness of where we stood or what we were doing? If we mentally experienced 2020 as a teacup filled by a firehose, you could also say we’d been washed clean by the end. Afterward, nothing stuck to the inner surface. For my part, I published dozens of articles, interviews and columns on this website, but if you asked me to recall a single one of them, I’d stare at you slack-jawed for a minute or two, then forget the question itself.

Of course, the story of 2021 — the news, the statistics, the milestones — will be set into the collective memory. But as a full year of pandemic redux, in which the rules changed from day to day, it could prove somewhat diffuse and hard to summarize. It’s as though we’ll need to live through 2022 to figure out what the previous disasters meant. Then again, that’s always how meaning is created: with distance. I want to trust that the head-emptying I did in the past year wasn’t just emotional self-defense, but potentially constructive. That we deserved a respite from personal demons, speculative horror and intrusive anxiety, but also had to pull away from the situation to see it clearly. You can’t possibly be confused when you have zero thoughts.

Nevertheless, I’m hoping to regain a morsel of brainpower once the calendar flips over. The eternal sunshine of the spotless mind is useless without some practical worry. We have to embrace our indifference sometimes, to survive, but then — with luck — we get to expand our perception again. And the truly fortunate stumble across a fact to satisfy evermore.